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Thursday, April 2, 2009

South Dakota Corrections: Are We Man Enough to Rehabilitate?

Corrections—no, I didn't make a mistake... or did I? Do we all?

My Wednesday post on South Dakota's correctional system received a very intelligent and probing comment from my friend Shane Gerlach, who can speak with some experience as to the failings of our methods of dealing with those who break the law. For those of you who don't venture into the comments section, I promote his commentary in full here:

so here's the deal Corey...Please PLEASE find one correctional counselor with a counseling degree...please. If you do I will buy you the beverage of your choice.

Recidvism is ridiculous in this state because there is no rehabilitiation. Change must come from within certainly but BUT many of these men and women need and desire guidance and help.

Part time farmers, small business owners, promoted guards posing as counselors and a very overwhelmed and out numbered staff are not the help needed.

I broke my cycle...it can be done; but I had the advantage of suportive family and friends, an education, willpower and a solid release plan. I was way WAY ahead of the curve.

When we stop treating sicknesses as diseases (addictions and mental illness) our prison population will drop.

BTW Corey...where besides prison can one find a state sponsered treatment program?!?!?!?!?! You know for people who can't afford treatment but want...NEED....help?

Punishment has won the war over Rehabilitation. We are reaping exactly what we sowed. Prison has become a business that is profitable to this state. Who wired the schools? Who builds the cabins for the state parks? Who builds the Govenors houses? Who fights forrest fires? Who does disaster clean up? Who ran the state farm? Who work for 25 cents an hour for the DOT, Counties (including the Yankton Library) and other entities?

Prisoners. The correction system is nothing but a machine with a HUGE revolving door.

Hit me up some time I'll give you first hand truths.

Shane Micheal Gerlach

Punishment has won the war over rehabilitation—even I, your favorite bleeding-heart secular humanist prairie liberal, am prone to the macho lingo that proves Mr. Gerlach's point. I look at drunk drivers, drug dealers, et al. and speak of "giving them what they deserve."

But what do criminals... sinners... our fellow men and women deserve? Recall Hamlet's admonishment of Polonius, upon Polonius's statement that he will treat the visiting players according to their "desert":

God's bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
[William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2]

I'm torn here. I like to believe that hard work will straighten a criminal out better than any counseling. But I know some folks outside of prison who've worked hard all their lives and are nothing but hard, bitter people. And when the state relies on cheap inmate labor, there is always a danger of dependence on what some might call slavery (not to mention driving down wages in the non-criminal workforce).

I often don't respond well to recommendations for counseling... but that's my persistent prairie machismo again. Maybe folks who break the law, especially those depressed enough to self-medicate, could use more interaction with counselors, folks trained in psychology who are less interested in reminding the criminals of the mistakes they made and the dirt-scum treatment they "deserve" and more interested in helping convicts understand their weaknesses and build strategies to deal with them.

My Christian friends might argue that it takes courage to forgive... and even more courage to reach out and help. And remember, courage comes from the Latin word for heart. To address our growing prison population, we need to figure out where our hearts lie between punishment and rehabilitation.


  1. This is one of those areas of concern where cultural attitudes are in direct conflict with the facts. Blanchard in a column this week claims that it is a falsehood that a significant number are imprisoned for substance problems. But the DOC's own statistics, which you quote, show that half the people released from prison were there for substance violations. Blanchard says we should be thankful for the high incarceration rate because it keeps us safe. That was also Eichmann's rationale to the German people for concentration camps.

    My take on corrections comes from work I have done concerning wrongful convictions. There is a high recidivism rate because prisons are very effective indoctrination centers for criminality. They teach not only criminal skills, but they condition anti-social attitudes.

    Prison society is run by the most ruthless of the criminals, not by corrections officials. Our focus is on vengeance, not on reparations for the criminal acts. We get the results we design corrections to produce. Our methods tend to condition offenders into sociopaths. Over the years I have witnessed many students whose minor brushes with the law have branded them as criminals and isolated them from the very relationships they needed to guide them to constructive behavior. There is a need in the ur-fascist mentality (Umberto Ecco's term)to create an underclass which deserves all those attitudes and social treatments that were once expended on serfs and slaves.

    Many of us have a skeptical attitude about counseling because we have seen pseudo-psycho charades, not empirically derived methods of dealing with behavioral transgressions.

    Before we can rehabilitate criminals, we must confront our social-cultural need to maintain an underclass on which we can vent our ill will and apply the need to oppress a class to which we feel superior.

  2. Oh good grief. I don't need a subclass of incarcerated people to make me feel good. If a person does a minor crime, why not put them on house arrest with only leaving to go to work and be productive. If they won't work and support themselves/their family, then to jail they can go. It would keep the nonviolent offenders out of jail, make them pay their own way and hopefully taxes, and keep them away from the really violent elements in jails. They could be monitored with ankle bracelet. If they were for drug/alcohol offenses, make them check in with officials morning and night on their way to and from work by expanding Long's program already in place. This would keep them busy and out of trouble hopefully and off the public dole and lessen the prison population.


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